Procrastination isn’t laziness but instead something more closely associated with fear. Here, we go into detail about how to set your mind right.

Before we start the exploration, I should set out from the beginning what procrastination is and what it isn’t – there’s a lot of confusion about that.

What it is:

“The action of delaying or postponing something, often to the last minute, even though delay comes at a cost.”

What it isn’t is:

  • Laziness
  • Poor time management
  • A failure of character

Procrastination is often mistaken for laziness and, because of that, possesses a lot of baggage. That baggage often compounds the original problem because guilt about procrastination leads to more procrastination.

Procrastination tip No.1

So, first tip of my four, be kind to yourself.

Procrastination is often the reverse of laziness – people who procrastinate are often very active. They have the tidiest houses, they have read the most books, baked the most cakes, adopted the most orphans, saved the most worlds.

They do anything, in fact, to avoid doing the thing they most want to do.

That’s because pure procrastination frequently involves a meaningful project – something you want to do, something that will possibly define you, but something you always stop yourself from doing for some unknown reason.

That could be learning to play the violin, setting up that BnB, moving to Australia, writing that screenplay, or building a hedge maze in the garden.

I’m a journalist. I’m also a procrastinator.

Despite my habit of leaving everything to the last minute, I always hit my deadline. And I’ve always relied on three tools.

  • Inspiration.
  • Bum on seat.
  • Deadline.

These three come to your rescue all the time but they can’t be entirely relied upon: side hustles don’t come with headlines; inspiration is fickle; and you can put your bum on a seat and then get lured into internet rabbit holes.

Why people really procrastinate

I worked as a journalist at Canary Wharf I wrote for a lot of people who were driven and ambitious and keen on extracting maximum effort out of every second. I found myself doing lots of articles about productivity and talking to time management gurus.

Techniques like these:

  • The Pomodoro Technique
  • Eat The Frog
  • Domino Reaction
  • Covey’s Time Grid
  • The Eisenhower Matrix
  • Pareto Analysis
  • The Rule of 10-10-10

I got some feedback from readers who said, that’s great for people who are at that point. But what about the real procrastinators, the professional-grade postponers.

So I talked to these people about their enemies to progress.

  • Overthinking
  • Chaotic thinking
  • Social media
  • Meetings
  • Myth of multi-tasking
  • Too many goals
  • Too few goals

And I realised I was looking at the procrastination problem completely the wrong way.

Like 17th century writer Jonathan Swift wrote.

“It is useless to attempt to reason a man out of a thing he was never reasoned into.”

What’s stopping you?

So, talking to these arch procrastinators, I came to realise that procrastination was a deep rooted automatic negative emotional response. And here were some of the reasons why.

  • Fear of failure – stopping yourself just in case.
  • Fear of success: What are the unknowable implications. What if I’m brilliant at the violin – do I have to move to Prague? Is there a Starbucks in Prague? Will I miss House of Dragons season finale?
  • Fear of the unknown – I can’t precisely plot where this idea is going to take me and that frightens me.
  • Fear of being judged – what will my neighbours think if I build a hedge maze in my garden.
  • Perfectionism – what if it’s not as good in reality as it has been in my long-held dreams?
  • Guilt – when I’m in my zone, I’m entirely ignorant of everyone else’s needs and people need me.

This is where the situation gets very knotty.

The only way to tackle these significant obstacles was to go to the root of the problem: start messing about in the weird jelly of the mind, roll up your sleeves get up to the elbows in psychological goo.

How the brain works

We don’t “see” the world, we interpret it in a way that makes it easier for us to understand. Check out this optical illusion.


Squares A and B are the same colour. Trust me, I checked, ripping apart the thing in Photoshop. And it’s true. But the brain has made it appear like they’re different shades of grey to make life easier for you. You’re not experiencing the reality of those two squares (which are the same wavelength) but an interpretation of them.

The brain aims to deliver a reality that meets your expectations. We interpret the world rather than experiencing it and how the brain has to organise itself to achieve that.

This set up creates a flaw in our perception of reality. Because the brain doesn’t really know what’s going on. It’s working blind. In effect, it only knows what you tell him.

Like neuroscientist Professor David Eagleman said,

“Consider the whole beautiful world around you, with all its colours and sounds and smells and textures,” neuroscientist Professor David Eagleman said. “Your brain is not directly experiencing any of that. Instead, your brain is locked in a vault of silence and darkness inside your skull.”

We’re living in a story that we tell ourselves.

Your brain doesn’t know know, it just thinks it knows.

Brain to the, er, rescue?

The point being, if you’re thinking, it’s Sunday, the weather forecast is brilliant I’ve got all day to start my novel. But at the same time you’re thinking:

  • Fear of failure
  • Fear of success
  • Fear of the unknown
  • Fear of being judged
  • Perfection or not at all
  • Guilt

Then this happens:

In your head, all of a sudden the lights are flashing and the alarms are going off. It’s the fear response. The brain doesn’t know your fears are unjustified or irrational or stupid or self-defeating. He’s in a vault of silence and darkness, remember. It doesn’t know you’re safe. Fear is fear is fear to your mind and keeping you alive is the brain’s prime directive.

That’s why your palms sweat and your heart beats faster watching YouTube videos of people hanging from skyscrapers. Your brain thinks you’re in danger – and reacts accordingly.

So your brain follows primary protocol and hits the big red button and yells, get us the hell out of here.

That’s procrastination in action. Or in inaction.

How to defeat procrastination

But here’s the good news.

The flaw in perception works both ways. If the mind believes all the bad stuff you tell it, then the brain can just as easily believe all the good stuff you tell it.

If you construct a different story, the opposite story – about success, your positive feelings to your project and your anticipation of the rewards that will follow, then the mind will move heaven and earth – change your mentality and your physiology even – to bring about those good feelings.

Procrastination tip No.2

That’s lesson 2 – manage how you view the task, reframe the negatives as positives and harness the hidden power of the mind.

Not so much fake it till you make it, which implies an act of deception, but believe it to achieve it.

Procrastination tip No.3

Lesson three is the most important of the lot: habit.

Habit is the brain’s automatic worksheet.

Habit is the slayer of procrastination.

Habit is your conscious way of telling your brain to to get everything prepared for the project you are about to embark upon even when you aren’t thinking about it yourself. The brain sets you up in advance so there’s nothing to be scared of. There’s no shock to the fight-or-flight centre.

That’s why writers and sports people and others have rituals. Rituals are the primers for the habit loop. They’re the cue.

Rituals can include time, place, special socks, whatever. Just be at your desk 8.30am with the Word document open, type in the word “the” and that is the nudge that sets off the roller coaster.

Forget inspiration. Inspiration is a fickle friend, it’s a sugar rush. Rely on habit.

Procrastination tip No.4

The fourth and final tip is just as significant but easier to accomplish and I’ve mentioned it already: you have to start.

It’s easy. And devilishly difficult too.

Start something. Do something. Show the brain some commitment.

Do something for two minutes and you’ll end up doing it for five hours.

Here’s one of my favourite quotes (from Johann Wolfgang von Goethe:

“Whatever you can do or dream you can, begin it. Boldness has genius, power and magic. Begin it now.”

Finally better still and in summary, this from Ernest Hemingway who says everything I have said in just seven words – which was pretty much his party trick.

“The shortest answer is doing the thing.”

Summing up

  1. Be kind to yourself
  2. Actively reframe the negatives as positives.
  3. Build effective habits.
  4. Begin